How a Part-Time Job in Japan Boosted my Japanese

Quarter-Pounder Check

On your Japanese journey, an English teaching job can be an easy vehicle for getting into Japan and surviving there. But it also has a lot of downsides: collapsing companies, shady bosses, low job satisfaction, and most importantly, it provides little opportunity to encounter or use Japanese. Even worse, plenty of eikaiwa schools actively discourage teachers from learning or using Japanese. The Japanese natives you meet through these jobs either speak English or want to speak English, even if you spend time with them outside the work environment.

We all lament not having enough free time to study as much Japanese as we would like, but isn’t it better if time spent at your job–time you have to spend to survive–can support your Japanese study as well? Out of all the Japanese jobs you can spend doing in Japan to improve your Japanese, I believe the most abundant and most overlooked is the humble part-time job.

You heard me. We’re talking minimum wage, no experience necessary, “I thought I’d quit doing this after highschool” jobs. Receptionist, cashier, salesperson, delivery guy, dishwasher, burger flipper, you name it. This probably sounds like crazy talk; why go all the way to Japan to do a job any Japanese native out of highschool could do better than you? My only answer is the speak from experience: your Japanese will explode.

After a rocky two and a half years in the English-teaching business, I was hovering around a Level 10, stagnating in Japanese and incredibly frustrated. After swearing off eikaiwa, I was faced with the big question: what now? Money started to get tight and, in a desperate pinch, I cobbled together a  履歴書(りれきしょ – a Japanese resume), grabbed a copy of TownWork and started answering ads. After just a few shaky phone calls, I got an interview, and soon I was working at a new branch of an udon shop…and having the time of my life!

In three months of working in the restaurant industry in Japan, my skills experienced more growth than they had through my entire two-and-a-half-year English-teaching career, for several reasons:

1. Sink or swim

In an English-teaching job, or most other circumstances in Japan, the amount of Japanese you need to use is very limited. English instructions are plastered everywhere, most important buildings have at least one English-speaking staff member in them, and when that doesn’t help, gestures and pidgin Japanese usually suffice.

Not so with a job where you are expected to speak to Japanese people on a moment’s notice. You’re interacting with customers and you need to communicate quickly, efficiently and politely. If you can’t do that, or make yourself able to do that, you don’t have a job. When a job and income are on the line, it suddenly makes going out of your way to get better at Japanese a high priority.

2. Talking to new Japanese people every day boosts confidence

That said, it’s not actually that difficult to stop sinking and start swimming, because you’ll have countless opportunities to use your Japanese and get better. Not only are you interacting with Japanese coworkers in an immersion environment, but talking to hundreds of customers a day really takes the intimidation out of initiating conversation. You don’t hum and haw and worry about what you’re going to say because you’ve done this hundreds of times before. You skip the worrying and gain the ability to just talk. It doesn’t matter if you’re starting out with canned phrases like “何のお待ちでしょうか?” and “1万円でよろしいですか?” because the confidence you gain talking to people carries over into conversations that go off the rails.

3. Immersion environment

Groups of people rarely come into a restaurant to eat in silence, so working in a restaurant is a great way to hear countless snippets of real conversation. You might not get to hear full conversations, but you can treat it like channel-surfing through the radio, and you’ll hear a lot of casual Japanese and phrases. The same could be said of a part-time job anywhere else (except perhaps a library). In public places, people talk, and you can take advantage of that.

4 Background-noise-boosted listening abilities

Restaurants are noisy. Customers jabber, dishwashers hum, kitchen timers go off, dishes get stacked, and the staff members yell things to each other. When someone gives you instructions or a customer asks a question, being able to cut through all the background humming and hear the speaker clearly is a vital skill. As with all things, practice makes perfect, and using your Japanese in such a noisy environment every work day will supercharge your listening ability. All the conversations you’re having also build your ability to anticipate what is being said in Japanese and let your brain fill in the blanks when you really can’t hear the words clearly, something you do in your native language without even realizing it.

So if you’re tired of the English teaching gauntlet and want your Japanese to really start shining, don’t be afraid to take the leap into a Japanese part-time job! It might not be the most glamorous work you’ll do in your life, but the valuable Japanese experience you gain will more than make up for that.

Written by: Akebi

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Akebi spends her time playing copious amounts of video games in Japanese, when she's not learning the craft of making delicious noodles at her part-time job.


How a Part-Time Job in Japan Boosted my Japanese — 16 Comments

  1. Really great post! When I first decided I wanted to live in Japan, I thought I would want to be an English teacher. At the time, I really enjoyed helping my Chinese friends who were international students improve their English. I’ve volunteered teaching English for a couple of years and have my TEFL certificate. Although it’s a lot of fun, it’s not something I imagine myself doing for the rest of my life. In these volunteer jobs, I had free reign in my lessons too. In Japan, unless you’re teaching freelance, there’s little room to individualize your lesson. Not for me at all. I’m happy enough to teach my future kids English, and maybe volunteer at a church, but don’t want to make it my career.

    I was worried that I might have to be an English teacher just to get by until my Japanese is good enough when I move there, but now I have hope that there are other options. I hope to work at a daycare, and maybe do translating.

    I wonder what it’s like for a translator living in Japan. That job involves a lot of English, but would also involve a lot of Japanese.

    • I’ve also wondered what it would be like for a translator living in Japan. It seems like an interesting job, but the problem for most Japanese learners is that it’s clearly an endpoint. You get a translator job only after you’ve achieved a high level. If that’s a job you really want, it’s a great motivator, but it doesn’t seem like a good learning environment for most of us.

      It’s easy to get stuck in the thinking that the only jobs you can do in Japan are either no-Japanese jobs like English teaching, or high-level Japanese jobs like translation or working at a Japanese branch of an international company. Part-time stuff is a great middle point, because it requires Japanese, but not enough that you wouldn’t be able to handle most jobs after a few months to a year of dedicated studying.

  2. Great post. I was actually thinking of going in that direction. When you got your job, did they hire you at a level 10 proficiency?

    • They hired me as I was at the time, choppy Japanese and all! I really did stumble through the first couple of days, but nobody really got frustrated about my level or bothered me during that time. Most of the new hires politely interacted with me and left me alone until they figured out more about me, but the other half, the people who counted–the director, the store manager, and the experienced people–were really nice and understanding, dealing with things slowly. They put me in an important but unskilled place (door-greeting and flyering) during the grand-open rush, and then trained me in the kitchen during the downtime. After those first couple of days, I picked up most of what I needed to know quickly.

      • Oh, wow! I’m really surprised! I heard that even for part time jobs like these, you have to have a high JLPT score. It’s great to hear that’s not necessarily so.

        • I’ve never met a local who even knew what the JLPT is. Its usefulness in getting you a job is probably limited outside of Tokyo. Even if you say its Japanese name, people understand that it’s a test of Japanese proficiency but have no idea what the degrees mean. Most people just say something like “Oh, is this like the TOEIC for Japanese? What does this score mean? Is this good?”I hadn’t taken the JLPT at the time and still thought it was important to put something on my resume that said I had ability equivalent to Level 3. I don’t think anyone even looked at it twice. Nobody commented on it or asked me to prove a score. The fact that I was talking in the interview was enough.
          There are probably some high-profile jobs that know about the JLPT, but its presence or absence won’t affect your job prospects most of the time. Let your skill and willingness to learn show and that’ll be fine.

  3. Thank you for the insight and sharing Townwork. I will definitely look into something like that on my stay there.

  4. Really? Those jobs are “no experience necessary” in Japan? Because here in WA state, I can’t find ANY job because of my nonexistent work history (other than an internship at a Japanese cultural center in Seattle, and possibly a college workstudy via financial aid this fall). I can’t even apply at McD’s because of an obscure local law requiring me to have obtained a food handler’s permit during freshman year of high school to be eligible for one after age 18. Not that I need one in Japan, but…

    But yeah, if I ever get the money to go to Japan long-term (right now, a coding job for Adanac Entertainment is my best bet), I’ll definitely try this. Maybe not a food shop (the other disqualifier for that handler’s permit is I fail at cooking anything more complicated than prepackaged ramen), but something else that would give me that level of exposure to Japanese daily life.

    • Some of the jobs have experience preferences. Yakiniku shops in particular tend to list competency with a chef’s knife as an important asset for applicants. But if you pick up a part-time job magazine, usually it’s plastered with ads that proclaim exactly that: no experience necessary, you will be trained, please please please oh please apply pretty please?

  5. Great post! I’ve always wanted to live in Japan but I don’t want to teach english for longer than a year or two. I wanna do what you’ve been able to do, which is get a job in Japan that is not teaching english. A part time job at first is fine, but eventually I wanna work full-time at a Japanese company.

    One question though, all of my Japanese friends have told me that age really matters in Japan when you are trying to get a “real” job, and as I’m already 28, do u think there’s any chance to get hired?

    I’m probably level ~15 now, and by the time I can go to Japan (like 1-2 years from now) I wanna be much higher, but… will I be able to find a job at age 30 or 30+ ??

  6. Hey, great post first of all!

    My question is, how the heck did you get an interview after you were done being an English teacher? I thought Japan only hired foreigners for specific skills. Without a work permit, this post almost seems like something that could never happen, how did your employer deal with the work visas and such?

    • There are a few different questions embedded in your question, so I’ll start by saying that Japan’s work visa system is a little bit different than in, say, Korea. Maybe it’s changed recently, but in South Korea, your employer owns your visa, and once your relationship with your employer terminates, so does your visa. I had a friend who went to Korea before coming to Japan, and when things with his employer went south, he had to get out of the country as quickly as he could. In Japan, once you have your visa, you own your visa. It doesn’t matter if or when your relationship with the employer ends. Once you have it, you have it, and you can use it to get other jobs. So after an employer verifies that you’re allowed to be in the country, they don’t need to file any additional immigration paperwork on your behalf that I’m aware of.

      Getting a job different from the one specified on your visa is a different matter–if you even have an occupation specified at all. I came over, and still exist on a dependent visa, and yet can still work. Students are allowed to get jobs to support their ability to exist in the country. The list goes on. No matter what your visa, if you want to do something like a part-time job, your best bet is to get something called a “Permission to Engage in Activity Other Than That Permitted By The Status of Residence Previously Granted” form, or 資格外活動許可書 for less of a mouthful. You can apply for one at your local immigration office, and it’ll list your present activity (“being married to person x” or “going to university y” or “working at job z”), and the type of thing you’re allowed to do after receiving the permit, such as working a certain number of hours per week.

  7. Great post! I really think the same, by working part time that required you to speak japanese is a good way to improve your japanese. That is why I am trying to get a japanese part time job. I am wondering how many jobs did you apply before you get this job. As I have been trying applying a lot, and usually get turn down just because of my choppy japanese! Anyway, I will still my best to find one! At least your post here give me hope. Thanks!!

    • On doing a little research, it looks like the rate starts anywhere from 850-1000 yen/hour depending on location.

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